Sunday, February 10, 2013

Side Effects

SIDE EFFECTS: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones, directed by Steven Soderbergh (106 min.)

Steven Soderbergh has informed everyone Side Effects will be his last theatrical film; later this year his Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, will come to HBO starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. We’ll see about that. Soderbergh is merely 50, and hopefully after a few years he will get the urge to return to the chair. I admire Soderbergh’s willingness to step out of comfort zones and try new things wherever he can find room. I haven’t always loved his films, but none of them ever seemed offensively bad. And even though I mention his willingness to step outside a certain realm from time to time, Side Effects is firmly within Soderbergh’s comfort zone. In the tradition of his groundbreaking sex, lies, and videotape, it is a throwback to the psychosexual thrillers of the 90s where upper-middle class yuppies are threatened and lives compromised.

Rooney Mara, an old soul with such peculiar beauty and mannerisms, plays Emily Taylor. She is married to Martin (Channing Tatum) who, as we open on their story is being released from prison for insider trading. Martin’s arrest sent Emily’s life into a wicked spiral of depression, which is understandable as her life was ripped away from her, but he is out now and they move forward. Only it is clear Emily is not over her depression, and she begins acting out. She causes an accident in her car and is sent to the hospital where she meets a psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks, played with reserve by a purposefully less engaging Jude Law.

Dr. Banks seems like a compassionate and good man, and he wants to help Emily. He is married with a stepson and a growing practice in Manhattan. “Did you try and hurt yourself today?” he asks, with genuine concern. Emily is released from the hospital but promises to have weekly sessions with Banks so he can try to cure her of her depression. Banks consults Emily’s former psychiatrist, Dr. Siebert, played by Catherine Zeta- Jones in a solid return to form in a smaller role. Banks prescribes Emily some medication which works sometimes and doesn’t work others. She asks not to be on Zoloft anymore, and she wants to try a new drug her friend told her about, Ablixa. Banks obliges and the new drug appears to be having quite the positive reaction for her at first. Ablixa stimulates the mind and blocks out depression. Emily’s sex life with Martin improves and her mood reverses. But it turns out Ablixa has some nasty side effects.

I don’t want to get into much more of the plot because following along is the fun of it all. Even the mention of the slightest substantial development could give something away. Soderbergh doesn’t reveal too much, and he is balanced with his camera work. Every character and scene is shot at an angle, low or high left or right, keeping every character in a suspicious light. He utilizes natural lighting better than any director maybe in the history of cinema, and here is no exception. Soderbergh knows how to frame his actors against lamps and in doorways hidden in shadow. In a film like The Informant it doesn’t make as much sense as it does here, within the walls of a seductive thriller.

That being said, something feels slight about the whole thing. The performances are all quality; it is some of the best work from Jude Law and Zeta- Jones in years. And yet, even the most dangerous aspects of the thriller don’t feel dangerous. The stakes don’t feel as high as they should for everyone involved, and even a character death doesn’t feel as powerful as it should. This is a slick and entertaining thriller, and fun to guess along with as the plot twists and turns, but it’s more gloss really than anything along the lines of Fatal Attraction or even sex, lies, and videotape. Side Effects is most certainly a welcome change this month for moviegoers tired of 80s has-been action stars, lukewarm horrors, and unfunny comedies that have been filling the multiplexes early in 2013. Had it been released during awards season, it would have been buried.